Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Staying Alive: AIDS Lessons on How to Kick into "Surviving Mode" When Facing Extreme Situations

The AIDS pandemic will turn thirty (30!) this year, yet it has been forgotten by almost everybody for quite a few years. Nowadays, we don't really fear AIDS or HIV anymore. We have our meds to keep us safe... (?)

Yet, there is a lot to learn, still, about the pandemic, especially from those who are still here to tell its story. AIDS takes away not only patients' health, but their dignity, their security, loved ones, bankrupting their lives at all levels. Only then, when there's nothing left, AIDS takes away their physical lives.

AIDS lessons may be priceless to those faced with extreme situations of any kind, especially nowadays, when we do face extreme financial and economical situations. I'd like to share with you a short excerpt from my book, Journeys Through Darkness, a biography that tells the story of AIDS through the story of a photographer, Kurt Weston, a long-term AIDS survivor who has lived with HIV and related sight loss for many years and who, in spite of all the obstacles, has become an award-winning visual artist.

Hope you'll enjoy the read and find Weston's story as inspiring as I did. As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness. Chapter Four: Self-Reflections

[...] Learning how to stay alive required the photographer to take on some responsibilities of his own, including devotion and commitment to his life, and also a lot of time, money, and effort. These were the bases of living in a “surviving mode,” which meant focusing solely on living one day at a time, while slowing down his life to bare necessities in order to stay alive.
    A situation as extreme as a terminal illness forces individuals to stop and take time to relearn how to stay alive. Such an extreme situation starts by depleting individuals’ existence one layer at a time until reducing their lives to basic surviving needs.
    AIDS, for example, isolates and stigmatizes its victims, while taking away their social life, their connection with their families, friends, and peers. But it doesn’t stop at that. AIDS continues by peeling off layer after layer of one’s life, until there’s nothing left. While the network of familiar faces (friends and family) may vanish first, the financial layer comes next. Patients are left jobless. With their bank accounts depleted, some are forced to live on disability. AIDS also attacks the most private layer of human existence, that related to the self-images individuals reflect on themselves and on others. The disease mutilates the physical appearance of its victims to such extent that it can permanently fracture this aspect of patients’ lives. The intimate connections, the physical touches people need especially when during tough times, disappear shortly afterwards. And so do the personal and sexual lives of AIDS patients, because nobody desires them and nobody wants to be with someone whose body is deformed or who’s sick and dying.
    The actual physical death happens only after a slow and painful process during which patients are forced to experience the death of several dimensions of their existence. Those who manage to survive are sometimes left with virtually no means to do so; they are forced, therefore, to come up with their own ways of staying alive. Some do that by developing their own survival skills, like learning how to live in the moment or informing themselves about AIDS and researching various ways to stay alive even if only for a while longer. After all, they have nothing to lose.
    Through it all, staying alive becomes an art in itself. Learning this complex process is not easy and not everyone has the kind of strength or inspiration required to attempt it.
    Two decades after his AIDS diagnosis, Kurt Weston considers himself lucky to have connected with people who could help him quickly learn how to fight the disease, and who gave him the hope and strength necessary to keep focused on his surviving. The photographer believes that being around survivors at that stage in his life and his AIDS was a vital part of his winning the battle with his disease.

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